Learning to see – again!

I keep banging on about this and do not intend to stop. It is not only key to being a good photographer but essential for getting the most out of the world around you. I do not profess to have any exceptional ability in this area, sure I work at it, but I know I still pass countless gems without ever noticing them. Simply walking around with your eyes open is not enough; it is passive and to really see we need it to be an active endeavour.

Endeavour.. what does it mean? Try earnestly, effort directed to a goal. This is the nub of it, there is beauty all around us almost all of the time but it is swamped by ugliness or the mundane, often of man’s creation; little has not been affected by man after all.

Another aspect we need to bring into the equation is emotion. How often have you been on holiday and come back with loads of photographs which, when you finally get to go through them are disappointing?

You have been to somewhere new, the weather was good, work and the rest of the daily grind was forgotten and you felt good. Everywhere were new vistas and with the warm sun and relaxed feeling of the holidays you took pictures of … how you were feeling? It does not work; yes you enjoyed the holiday but now you have nothing tangible to refresh that memory. I have done it myself.

The cause of the problem is forgetting the basics of photography. A good photograph grabs the viewers attention, it does so by concentrating; just like squash is a poor substitute for the contents of a freshly squeezed orange. The grand view is rarely that grand as a photograph, a print on a sheet of paper, even if it is of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or one of those dreamed of locations needs to be concentrated if it is to grab the viewer. A mile wide canyon is obviously impressive, a two inch wide gap on a piece of paper much less so. A friend once told me a good landscape picture required that the photographer find a really good view and then put something even better in front of it. Simply put a photograph needs foreground interest; something of substance to grab the viewer and say “Look at me.”

I shall illustrate this with just one example from Swithland Woods which is quite local to me. It’s a pretty enough spot but in the round not overly photographic however once one starts to look a bit closer it is much more attractive.

Here is a view along a pathway through the woods


a pleasant enough place for a walk yes but would you print this and enter it in a club competition or hang it on your living room wall? I doubt it, even with professional processing this would be mundane. So where is the picture? The first thing that appealed to me was the rotting stump, bottom left

Glory in death

That is much more interesting, stronger colours, texture and back-lighting all add to the interest.

I started my walk just after dawn and the low sunlight was warm both in terms of the Kelvin and the thermometer but with the light pouring through tree branches with no leaves on them any photograph would inevitably suffer from distracting highlights above ground level. A broader woodland scene would be out of the question; a little later in the season as the trees came into fresh spring leaf and it will all change so remember when you visit a new area to think what it will be like in a different season and make notes

If you find it difficult to learn the skills of looking I would suggest two things, practice regularly and to get you started look through the viewfinder of your camera, use this to screen the surroundings from your gaze and move the camera slowly so that you have time to look at each new frame as it passes before your eyes. If you have a zoom lens than slowly zoom in and out as you do so. Eventually you will be able to look at small areas without using camera and lens like blinkers. Keep at it and you will be rewarded. There is a photograph almost everywhere if you learn how to see.


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